The core assumptions underpinning the current drive for higher educational standards and increased school effectiveness are likely to be challenged by the findings of a five-country research study.
The hugely ambitious study is being led by Professor Robin Alexander of Warwick University, one of the "three wise men" who produced a seminal report on primary education in 1992.
Professor Alexander's new report on primary schooling in England, France, Russia, India and the United States, is still some months from completion but he has already reached some firm conclusions.
* It is a mistake to try to raise literacy and numeracy standards by downgrading the rest of the curriculum. Equally, reading and writing should not be emphasised at the expense of talk.
* Whole-class teaching is not a guarantor of educational success. It is also associated with failure worldwide.
* Teacher-initiated question and answers is not the only effective form of classroom interaction.
* The importance of time on task has been over-stressed. The pace and structure of lessons are actually more significant.
* There is no direct and causal link between pedagogy, attainment in literacy and national economic competitiveness.
Professor Alexander, who has visited several schools in each of the five countries, said that the dominant values underlying Britain's current obsession with literacy and numeracy targets were the same now as they were in the 1870s - economic instrumentalism, cultural reproduction and social control.
"As sociologists or historians we can note such continuities as grist to the mill of social theory, but as educationists we have to challenge them," he told a seminar on comparative education at Warwick University.
Educational researchers had a difficult set of tasks, too. "We have become adept at dissecting teaching but poor at reconstructing it: good at isolating factors in 'effective' classroom practice such as opportunity to learn and time on task, but less able to demonstrate how these and other elements are reconstituted by teachers and children as coherent and successful learning encounters with a beginning, a middle and an end."
Another daunting challenge was to "capture" more of the lesson that was being studied, but he realised there were limits to what anyone could take away from a classroom observation.
"You can no more see, hear, record or analyse everything that happens in classrooms than you can apprehend the universe, for not only are the dynamics of 30 individuals in interaction immensely complex, but what is arguably the most important part of the action goes on inside those individuals' heads. "
The problem of describing a lesson, even with the help of translators, video-tapes and copious notes, was also formidable.
But Professor Alexander, who has received funding from the Leverhulme Trust and the British Council, has found that musical analogies are helping him to convey what he has seen during his study, which began in 1994. "Tempo, for example, takes us beyond the familiar variables of 'time for learning', 'opportunity to learn', and 'pupil time on task'."
Professor Alexander will not, however, have to reach for his musical dictionary to describe the simplest aspect of classroom practice he has examined - "wall-mounted teaching materials", better known in England as "display".
For the record, the Russian classrooms' wall materials consisted mostly of permanent rules, injunctions and reminders on issues such as handwriting and posture.
The Indians posted moral messages while the English used the walls as a semi-permanent showcase. The French had a wider range of uses for their walls - pinning up rules and reminders as well as work in progress - as did the Americans .
"In the US we tended to find an eclectic mix of children's finished work, work in progress and exhortations, usually relating to attitudes and relationships and, in every classroom, the Stars and Stripes and the Pledge," Professor Alexander said.
The Warwick University seminar was the second of six that aim to stimulate new thinking on comparative research. They are being funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and organised by the universities of Warwick, Bristol and Oxford. The series began in the summer and will conclude with an international conference in autumn 1999. The paper presented by Professor Alexander will be published by Triangle Books next year with other seminar papers. Further information on the seminars and publications from Professor Alexander (01203-524443).
TEMPTED TO GO TO TAIWAN?
Three reasons why teachers' morale might be higher in Taiwan than in Britain: * Taiwanese teachers earn 20 per cent more than middle-level civil servants but pay no income tax.
* A huge banner at the country's international airport announces: "Great teachers make our country greater." * There are 15 teachers for every 10 classes, compared with perhaps 11 for every 10 in the UK.
Information supplied by Professor Graham Vulliamy of York University during discussion session at Warwick.
RUSSIAN RELIANCE ON RULES
The Cold War may be over but the education systems of Russia and the United States still appear to be as far apart as ever.
Having completed "fly on the wall" observations in primary schools in England, France, India, the United States and Russia (see article, left) Professor Robin Alexander has concluded that the last two countries may have least in common in terms of classroom practice.
In some respects the two countries have similar problems. Parents of the Moscow and Kursk children he studied were facing acute financial hardship and the degeneration of civic infrastructures. In Michigan there was anxiety about the collapse of traditional values and children's safety - a concern shared by many Russian teachers.
But the schools in Michigan and Russia reacted very differently. In Russia, there was a stress on rules, deference to teachers, and striving for the collective good. "There was a sense of pride in the school and a sense of occasion about each lesson," Professor Alexander said.
In Michigan, lessons were slower-paced and many pupils seemed distracted. "I found teachers working to counter rampant individualism, materialism, intolerance and violence," he said.
But some US teachers seemed to be both opposing and condoning prevailing cultural values. "Out of that moral confusion came procedural and behavioural problems, loss of classroom control and a diminution of the teacher's ability to promote learning."
WATCH THAT BABY - ON JAPANESE VIDEO
It is an everyday slice of life in an ordinary Japanese daycare centre but it has shocked many early-years educators in the West. The camera scans the Kyoto nursery then homes in on a group of four-year-old girls who are walking down a short flight of stone steps to get to the playground. What is remarkable about the scene is that each girl is carrying a plump baby in her arms that she has collected from the nursery.
The researcher who made the video, Joseph Tobin of the University of Hawaii, enjoys re-playing the scene to watch the response of Western audiences. They immediately think of the dangers of allowing an infant to carry a baby. "Who would be liable if there was an accident?" is the inevitable question.
But the Kyoto nursery staff were unperturbed. "The girls won't drop the babies," said one teacher who was surprised that Tobin should even consider such an eventuality. "They love the babies."
Tobin and his colleagues videoed the Kyoto centre during the course of their now famous study, Pre-school in Three Cultures: Japan, China and the United States. But he emphasises that the videos they made of a typical day in a nursery in each of the three countries were not the research data - merely the stimulus for discussion.
Tobin and his team replayed the tapes to the teachers concerned, their colleagues and parents, but they also showed them to nursery staff in other regions of the country they were filmed in and then, finally, in other countries. This enabled them to record many different perspectives. "It is what we call a polyvocal discussion," Tobin said.
Inevitably, there is ample room for misinterpretation unless the context is understood. As Tobin told a Warwick University seminar, most Western teachers might assume that the Kyoto centre allowed four-year-olds to carry babies into the playground so that the youngest children could benefit from playing with the infants. But the practice was actually encouraged for the benefit of the older children.
"I was told that it helped the four-year-olds to develop empathy with others," he explained. "Many of them had no brothers and sisters."
Other Japanese practices also surprised Tobin. While filming, he noticed a boy being bullied by a classmate. As the teacher did not intervene, the crying boy had to be comforted by a girl. But the teacher was unapologetic.
"She told me that it was natural for children to fight and that, in any case, her non-involvement had allowed the girl to sort out the problem," he said. "Her argument was that children would never learn to handle such situations if adults always intervened."
Questions about class size also elicited an unexpected response. The Japanese teacher agreed that her class (of 28 infants) was too big. But she then surprised him by adding that, although she would benefit from a smaller class, the children would suffer. "She argued that in classes of between 12 and 20, children competed for the teacher's attention - but after 20 they gave up and had to become a class community," Tobin said.
Although he has spoken about his research across the United States, he has found little support for Japanese thinking on class size. In fact, Tobin admitted that many early-years educators were angry with him for even reporting her response.
But he believes that American teachers may be more receptive to Japanese thinking on non-intervention. "Personally, I would now count to 10 before intervening. And I think this view is having some effect on pre-service teachers who have seen our video."
Tobin clearly hopes that others will adopt his research techniques, too. And he has a persuasive fairytale analogy to offer anyone who questions the value of three-country studies.
"Studying three countries makes sense because then you get what I call the Goldilocks effect: China is too strict, Japan is too chaotic, the US is just right." Needless to say, he was joking.